Tracy Cattell credits two inspirational contributors to the improvement in her school’s Ofsted grades
Following the amalgamation of separate infant and junior schools, the knowledge and experience of our governing body varied enormously. Some had been long-serving governors at the previously separate schools; others, like me, were recruited at the point of amalgamation and came with no prior knowledge of governance to the new primary, which faced multiple challenges.
By far the greatest advantage was shared practice
On top of practicalities such as merging buildings, security and IT systems, two separate staff bodies with highly individual identities had to be united, and an historical problem of grade inflation at KS1 impacted significantly on the ability to demonstrate the requisite pupil progress at KS2.
Senior leaders rapidly implemented targeted interventions for older children and new strategies for improving the basic skills of younger ones, but none of these measures had results to show when we fell due for inspection. Ofsted descended, and our new school was demoralisingly graded as ‘requires improvement’.
Lack of training
Governance was heavily criticised, yet most of us had had no involvement in the process and didn’t know what we had been doing right or wrong. None of us had up-to-date training. The goalposts had undergone a seismic shift since our experienced governors had last had development input, and we had been fundamentally incapable of withstanding inspection under the new framework.
Our head arranged training, and also provided access to the school improvement consultant who skilfully steered us through the RAISEonline report. However, two of the most unlikely sources of support – because both had filled us with dread – ultimately had immense impact on our improvement and helped us to turn ourselves around.
The first was an Ofsted inspector (HMI). As a ‘requires improvement’ school we were subject to monitoring inspections, but by this time we had developed our practice as a result of our training, and assessment results had come in which reflected improving standards in both key stages as a result of the leadership decisions taken at the point of amalgamation, which the report recognised.
Crucially, HMI also advised that amalgamations are often divisive processes with the usual outcome of ‘special measures’, and that our head had achieved a remarkable success in avoiding this, uniting two disparate schools, correctly identifying what needed to be done, and driving up standards. This gave our governing body the confidence to fully support the school and, armed with up-to-date knowledge from our training and national case studies published by Ofsted, our school and governing body were in a position to work together to move the school forward.
Review of governance
The second was our review of governance, led by Lorne Pearcey, the chair of a primary level federated governing body and a National Leader of Governance (NLG). I had been chair for three weeks when it took place, and envisaged another inspection involving judging and pigeon-holing. Nothing could have been further from the truth: the process was overwhelmingly supportive, and Lorne was fundamental in focusing our improvement into practical steps through which we could develop and evidence improving governance.
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By far the greatest advantage was shared practice: Lorne generously shared templates for both school and governor reporting, and explained why they were effective. Her insights energised and refocused our governing body: she engaged with our particular circumstances and the development of our individual members, and was a boundless source of encouragement.
This input was critical in enabling us to develop into effective participants in the strategic leadership of our school, and her ongoing willingness to support meant that I, as a fairly inexperienced governor and a brand new chair, effectively gained a mentor as I found my feet in my new role.
Two years to the day since our previous inspection, Ofsted arrived again. This time, five of us went in to meet the inspection team; we felt prepared, confident in our school’s improvement and our own, and were armed with evidence presented in a way which we knew demonstrated the things Ofsted would need to check. Our school was graded ‘good’ in every aspect, and governance received a highly positive evaluation. The experienced and focused support of our NLG was instrumental in our achievement of this outcome and I would unhesitatingly recommend consulting one.
Tracy Cattell is chair of governors at Banners Gate Primary School in Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands
This article first appeared in Governing Matters magazine. Governing Matters is published by the National Governors' Association (NGA) for its members. For more information about joining the NGA visit: www.nga.org.uk/join